Why Looking Down at Earth Is a Life‑Changing Experience —

How does your world view change when you see the Earth from above?

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Frank White’s big idea came to him from a window seat. As the airplane he was in climbed northward over the United States capital, the space philosopher noticed that the Washington Monument and Capitol Building glinted like miniature “toys sparkling in the sunshine.” The city gave way to grid and terrain and everything  came into view: it was the overview effect.

According to White, it was a shift in awareness triggered by “the experience of seeing first‑hand the reality that the Earth is in space.” It became the motivation for his 1987 book, The Overview Effect, which was based on his interviews with astronauts, including former Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell who dubbed this instant global consciousness the “big picture effect.” Of course, a space flight or the cupola of the International Space Station provide optimal vantage points for this sort of cosmic clairvoyance, but White thinks that milder epiphanies can also be had closer to Earth.

Astronaut historian and University of Chicago post‑doctoral fellow Jordan Bimm traced the overview effect to the break‑off phenomenon, a sense of separation from the Earth identified in the 1950s by military pilots who flew at high altitudes. Even earlier, in 1935, French‑Swiss architect and designer Le Corbusier famously connected the eagle eye of the airplane to modern consciousness. And long before that, 19th‑century meteorologist and balloonist James Glaisher experienced a shift in his world view when he rose above the clouds, realizing that humans could be “free from all apprehension such as may exist when nothing separates us from the earth.”

December 17, 2020
An illustrated animated gif on how a person perceives the world below from an airplane window

“If you take the long view of it, every step off the planet will bring some new level of consciousness,” White says. “Intentionality is important, and wanting something to happen, or simply being available for something to happen is probably the most important aspect.” However, not everyone experiences the overview effect, but among those who do, its impact varies. Self‑transcendence and awe are common traits and emotions that accompany astronauts who have the experience, which has led some to explore earthbound overview analogues with meditation and virtual reality, including SpaceVR, a company offering flotation tanks in combination with VR headsets to replicate the sensation of zero gravity and immersive views of Earth from space.

The overview effect has a profound impact that stays with astronauts after they return from orbit. A recent paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that space flight boosted their pro‑environmental attitudes. “There are no boundaries drawn on the planet, really, and it looks fragile when seen from orbit,” former NASA astronaut Tamara E. Jernigan told White in an interview for his book. “You get the sense that we do need to be good stewards of the planet and of each other.” While most of us are unlikely to ever gaze down on Earth from orbit, every time we take a trip, we can’t help but see things a little differently.

Astronauts on the Overview Effect

  • Ron Garan, NASA astronaut and humanitarian — “It really does look like this beautiful oasis out in the middle of nothingness. And if you have the chance for your eyes to adjust and you can actually see the stars and the Milky Way, it’s this oasis against the backdrop of infinity.”

  • Chris Hadfield, First Canadian to command the International Space Station — “You see an entire continent in the time it takes to have a cup of coffee. You go from L.A. to New York in nine minutes. You see all of that history and culture and climate and geography and geology, and it’s all right there underneath you.”

  • Roberta Bondar, First Canadian woman in space — “To fly in space is to see the reality of Earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. I am one of the lucky ones.”